Enormous forest fire in New Mexico sets state record for acres burned

For the second year in a row, New Mexico is battling a huge, record-setting forest fire. The Whitewater-Baldy fire, triggered by lightning strikes, has torched more than 170,000 acres.

David Thornburg/AP
In this May 22 photo, a plume of smoke rises from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood, N.M.
US Forest Service/AP
The massive blaze in the Gila National Forest, seen from Neighbors Mountain directly east of Glenwood, N.M., Tuesday, May 29.

For the second year in a row, firefighters in New Mexico find themselves battling a record-breaking blaze.

Wednesday morning, fire officials reported that the Whitewater-Baldy fire had torched 170,272 acres since lightning triggered two fires May 9 and May 16 that merged to become the current conflagration.

Last June, the Las Conchas fire – ignited when a tree fell across a power line – charred a record 156,293 acres, threatening the town of Los Alamos and the US Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory.  

Fire officials say the potential for the fire's growth remains high. The Whitewater-Baldy fire is burning in the Gila National Forest in the southwest corner of the state, feeding on expanses of Ponderosa pine, junipers, grasses, and large areas of dead and downed trees. Extremely rugged terrain is making it difficult to control the blaze.

The fire, some 15 miles east of Glenwood, N.M., is threatening Mongollon, a mining town founded in the 1880s and now on the National Resigter of Historic Places. Residents in the area were evacuated over the weekend. The blaze also destroyed several homes in Willow Creek, which had been evacuated.

Winds upwards of 50 miles an hour drove the Whitewater-Baldy fire's initial expansion. Now, winds are lighter. But daytime temperatures are high and the humidity is in the single digits. Any ember or spark carried ahead of the blaze is virtually guaranteed to ignite any vegetation it touches, according to fire officials quoted in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

The Southwest's summer monsoons don't reach New Mexico until July, leaving the 1,236 firefighters battling the blaze with little hope of help from rainfall. The state remains in the grip of a long-term drought that contributed to last year's record fire season.

Indeed, arid conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” cover virtually the entire southwestern quarter of the continental US – from Texas north into Nebraska and across through northern Nevada and into California.

Firefighters also are battling a 6,000-acre blaze near Gateway, Colo., and a 5,300-acre fire east of San Diego.

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